Remembrance Day: Lest we forget the mothers of heroes

Interesting read on Churchill's greatest supporter, his mother

For Lady Churchill, war was a chance for her son Winston to achieve greatness. As Remembrance Day nears, her biographer Anne Sebba, herself a soldier's mother, offers the maternal view of military life

When Lady Randolph Churchill was touring hospitals at the end of the First World War she met a man lying quietly in his bed, so badly burnt and with so many broken bones that he was not expected to survive. “Well,” she boomed at the man, a survivor from the Royal Flying Corps, “you've heard of dear beer and

you've heard of dear bread. I want to tell you about dear Winston and when you are well I want you to vote for dear Winston.”

While other “Lady Bountifuls” confined their remarks to saccharine inquiries about the standard of food or the state of the patient's bowels, Jennie Churchill made this man believe in the possibility not only that he would get better but that, when he did so, his life would be of value.

For ever after the man attributed his recovery to such positive thinking, as his daughter, who told me this story, attested. She sought me out after a talk I gave about Jennie, the Brooklyn-born daughter of the financier Leonard Jerome, who not only promoted her son in peacetime but had no equal when it came to pushing the interests of her first-born, even if that meant him taking part in savage fighting. As the mother of a British soldier who has served in Iraq, I have often reflected with amazement on her vicarious ambition.

There are no mothers in poetry, Alice Macdonald Kipling told her son Rudyard. He had to get on in the world by his own merits. And traditionally most mothers of soldiers have accepted what their sons do and taken quiet pride in the fact that the boys they have nurtured into men have been prepared to pay the ultimate price. But they hope they won't need to.

It is hard to imagine a British mother today behaving as Jennie Churchill did when Winston was only 20, networking to get him to the most dangerous battles in the most bloodthirsty wars. Such unusual mothering, encouraging a child to seek out danger, to fulfil himself through fighting and then write about it, is neither possible nor credible now. In the first place, the British Army does not allow combatants also to be journalists. Secondly, most mothers have a protective gene and so, as I did, will encourage their sons in war zones with food parcels and platitude-filled e-mails urging them to act as safely as possible.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and on Armistice Day, November 11, Channel 4 is broadcasting a documentary about Jennie, Lady Randy. It is almost the last chance - while a handful of them are, remarkably, still living - to remember the sacrifice of thousands of British and Commonwealth servicemen not only in the trenches on the Western Front but also at Gallipoli in 1915, a disaster for which Winston Churchill has ever since been heavily criticised.

Churchill always remained convinced that the battle to control the Dardanelles had never been fought to the finish; that he had been let down by the politicians - a view in which his mother supported him unstintingly. “I thought he would die of grief,” said Clemmie, his wife, at the time. Yet it was Jennie, then in her sixties and newly divorced, who shored him up; Jennie who fumed on his behalf at the “slow and supine Government”; Jennie who motored down to Hoe Farm, in Surrey, where he was living, and bolstered his courage to carry on the fight. Back in London it was Jennie who invited influential war correspondents to dinner so that Winston could harangue them about the expedition and what might have been. Her unwavering support in the face of her son's looming “black dog” depression was crucial.

Jennie and her sisters suffered, like so many women during the Great War, proudly and stoically. Within the first few days Norman Leslie, her 28-year-old nephew, was killed by a sniper's bullet. A few months later Wilfred, her nephew-in-law, was killed, leaving two children. Yet somehow the wives, mothers and sisters carried on. They ran canteens, drove ambulances, knitted mufflers for their menfolk in the trenches, and they nursed.

Jennie wanted to be of service on her own terms and threw herself into raising money for the American Women's War Relief Fund. She also became honorary head matron of a hospital in London and helped to persuade the millionaire Paris Singer, of the sewing-machine dynasty, to allow his magnificent home in Devon to be used as a hospital. She was deeply scornful of the “pseudo-benevolence” of some women she knew who liked to offer rides only to soldiers with visible bandages.

From the day in 1895 when he left Sandhurst, aged 20 as a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Hussars, until his election as an MP at Oldham in 1900, young Winston fought in five campaigns in five years: India twice, Cuba, the Sudan and finally South Africa, where his exploits resulted first in his capture and then, when he escaped, in his being “wanted dead or alive”.

First Jennie paid his fare so that he could get to Cuba. She told him that she would ensure that he received fame, medals and “plenty of kudos” because she believed in him and in his destiny to survive. She also worked as his literary agent, encouraging him to write an immediate account of the fighting he saw.

She was constantly writing letters and arranging meetings to get him to Egypt to fight in the most significant campaign of the day, the reconquest of the Sudan. When her barrage of missives to General Kitchener failed to work, she told Winston that she would travel up the Nile herself, hoping that a personal visit would sway him. This action, Winston told his mother, “if ever I have a biographer, will certainly be admired by others ... your wit and tact and beauty should overcome all obstacles”. But, unknown to him, she was also using the visit for a romantic tryst with a handsome major in the Seaforth Highlanders with whom she was in love. Although the love affair ended in catastrophe, the lobbying succeeded. Churchill was attached to the 21st Lancers and fought in the last charge of the British cavalry, at the bloody battle of Omdurman.

Jennie, as a favourite daughter, was confident of her own destiny in life and passed this on to her son. Only when he returned to the trenches in 1915, over 40 and married, did she caution him to take care, reminding him that he was “destined for greater things”.

While I was researching my biography of Jennie, my son was serving in the Royal Green Jackets (now the Rifles) in Iraq and other places. His courage was neither expanded nor dented by anything I might have said. Like almost all British soldiers he had a job to do and simply got on with it. If he had a difficult mission to undertake, he might comment once it was accomplished - or not. Well-wishers would sympathise with how worried they thought I must have been but, at the risk of sounding hard-hearted, mostly I was not. I believed that he had the best training in the world and, although equipment often left much to be desired, he was innately sensible. Derring-do of the Churchill variety is not encouraged.

What has always concerned me more is the lack of respect in England, especially compared with the US, for all three armed services, largely on account of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. Last November 11 - Veterans Day - I was in Chicago and witnessed deep pride in the country's military personnel irrespective of feelings about the government of George W. Bush.

This November 11 we will be remembering not only the dead of two world wars but more than 300 British men and women killed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain still has more than 4,000 combat troops in Iraq and, although their role may soon be over, those helping to secure a peaceful future for Afghanistan face as much danger as ever. Most of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 have been in their twenties, including a handful of outstanding corporals, such as 24-year-old John Rigby, who would have become inspiring leaders.

Jennie did not encourage her son because she believed that he would die a hero's death. She did not want the glory of a dead soldier but knew that exposure to the Services created an unrivalled springboard into public life.

Today in Britain it is not just being the mother of a soldier that is uncomfortable; it is also being the wife, sister, child or friend. It would be good on November 11 not just to remember the dead but to reflect on how impoverished we all are, as a nation, by their loss.

Lady Randy: Churchill's mother, Channel 4, 9pm, November 11

Jennie Churchill: Winston's American Mother (John Murray, £8.99)

Anne Sebba is donating her fee for this article to Help For Heroes;

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